Courthouse Mural Project

Courthouse mural project enters final phase

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. – After two years of planning, designing and painting, the Council for the Arts is making its final push to complete its Courthouse Mural Project.

Calling it a “Mural Painting Party” on social media, the organizers are hoping downtown’s First Friday will bring a fresh wave of art-inclined community members of all ages to contribute.

They plan to ride the momentum across the finish line by the end of the weekend.

“This is a bigger project than what we were at first thinking,” says Andrea Finch, gallery coordinator for the council and project manager overseeing the mural project.

She explains that when the previous executive director of the Council for the Arts, Tarryne West, reached out to the courthouse about displaying local art within the new addition, “we thought we’d just have existing artists put art in the hallways.”

However, by the end of the talks, the council would be responsible for producing not one, but two Franklin County-themed murals – one measuring 6.5 feet by 20 feet and another measuring 12 feet by 24 feet – that will cover prominent spaces in the courthouse.

Finch estimates that by the time the project is completed, more than 30 artists will have touched their paintbrushes to these murals.

It is easy to imagine a project of this scale that stretches over such a long timeframe that involves coordination between a judicial building and 30 creative people becoming a quagmire of indecision or in-fighting. On the contrary, the project has not only survived, but it is coming together quite nicely.

“It has taken longer than we thought,” says Finch, “because the design process took a lot longer than we thought it would.”

Then there was a close call when transposing the 12 inch by 24 inch mock-up to the 12 foot by 24 foot gesso-coated polyester cloths. If something is off by an inch on the mock-up, it might go unnoticed, but it will be that much more noticeable at full size. Finch was working on the cupola on top of the courthouse when she realized something wasn’t right. In need of a new perspective, she went to the room above Falafel Shack and took pictures from straight on rather than from ground level. Crisis averted.

An interesting thing about murals is that they actually take up more space when they are disassembled. While the murals were in progress, the council maintained its active exhibition and class schedule. The first mural was officially started in May of 2022. “They painted pretty hard for May, June and July,” says Finch. [The Chambersburg previously checked in on the project in June.] Then they took a break for new gallery shows. “And everybody kind of needed a mental break.”

And then there was the matter of coordinating so many people while maintaining a single, visually coherent piece. It helps that the mural is naturally divided into sections, which allows the individual portions to be more manageable. Finch describes the approach as “paint by numbers,” but clarifies that “there has to be some artistic talent.”

She adds: “What I’m finding is that if I mix up the paints and say, ‘This color here and this color here,’ and that’s kind of paint-by-number.”

The abilities of the participating artists have been across the board from little-to-no experience to someone with a master’s degree in painting.

The panels themselves were prepared by Mural Provisions in Philadelphia. “It’s a polyester cloth that they hand coat with two coats of gesso” – a kind of primer that dries hard – “and then put it through a huge printing machine to do a ‘ghost print’ for us so we can paint it,” explains Finch.

Technically, Mural Provisions could have printed the entire mural, but representatives from both the council and the courthouse wanted to feature local artists.

Pam Bartl, a weaver, painter and potter with two assistants, seven looms and an average of 25 juried shows per year is one of those artists.

She is sitting on the floor, holding a ruler against the wall and marking off with a pencil the distances that will become the bases of courthouse’s columns. Only two of the mural’s panels are affixed to the wall, but they tower over her.

“I think it’s a fantastic project for Chambersburg,” she says. “It’s fantastic to see this happening here and all the artists working on it.”

Bartl adds: “It’s great to be a part of a community of artists because most of us work alone in our studios.”

In the front of the room, a woman is applying the final transitional elements that will complete the first mural. Farther back into the council’s large studio space, three women in black aprons are leaning over and carefully applying paint to a panel of the second mural that has been laid flat.

“I was thinking of what Michaelangelo’s studio would have looked like or any of the great masters with all of their apprentices around,” says Bartl looking around at the painters hard at work.

As an artist with a background in engineering, Bartl is a natural fit to design the courthouse’s column bases. She puts the ruler down, presses a clear plastic cup to the wall and traces its rounded edge onto the mural.

In the very back of the room, artist Linda Gottfried is figuring out how to recreate the mock-up’s watercolor effect using acrylic paints. She had initially resisted collaborating on the mural project saying “painting makes me nervous.” When Finch explained her paint-by-numbers approach, Gottfried decided to join up. “I just have to try to get the feeling of what she did,” said Gottfried, “and not have to reproduce it exactly.”

In her own practice, Gottfried is known for her fine art sculptures. She insists that she “plays” with clay, rather than “works” with it. Her goal is to achieve a child-like state of pure creativity where anything is possible. Somedays, she says, she achieves it.

“Once I get it, it will just flow,” says Gottfried. She is experimenting by adding a thinning medium to her acrylic paint and adding it to a small corner of her portion. “It’s too opaque,” she says. But she’s getting closer.

Because each artist only works on one piece of the puzzle, it can be difficult to conceive of the entire work – or how and when it will all come together.

It is early Friday afternoon, and Finch remains optimistic about the team’s progress.

“We’re really hoping to finish it by Sunday,” she says.

Whether they’re done or not, they are going to need the space for the Young Artist IceFest Art Show, which opens on Jan. 20.

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